Martian, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/01/15 23:03:38
Throughout his long career, filmmaker Ridley Scott has amassed a filmography that would be the envy of most of his contemporaries--directing "Alien" and "Blade Runner" alone would be enough to earn him a place in the pantheon and such films as "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator," "Hannibal," "Black Hawk Down" and "American Gangster" were critical and commercial successes as well. In recent years, however, even his biggest fans would have to admit that, while prolific, his output has been somewhat erratic--"A Good Year" was an abysmal stab at whimsy, "Body of Lies" was a somewhat muddled look at contemporary international affairs, "Robin Hood" was a bleak and depressing take on the normally high-spirited legend, "Prometheus"--an semi-prequel to "Alien" that I personally loved--largely failed to live up to its overinflated expectations, "The Counsellor" was one of the dumbest movies in recent years ever made by an acclaimed filmmaker and "Exodus: Gods and Kings" was a lumbering Bible epic that failed to dazzle or inspire. And yet, as bad as those movies were at times, you never had the sense that you were in the hands of anything but a master filmmaker and that when he finally got a hold of the right material, he would once again dazzle audiences.With "The Martian," that time has at long last arrived. For his latest excursion into the science-fiction genre (with an emphasis on the first half of that particular equation), he has brought Andy Weir's best-selling novel to the screen in an adaptation that is thrilling, thought-provoking and smart as a whip in equal measure. More importantly, even though it tells a story that is, on the surface, pretty fantastical, it does so on the kind of innately human level that audiences of all ages will be able to understand and embrace regardless of their grasp on all things scientific. The result is a space adventure of the highest order that once again asserts Scott's place as one of the all-time great storytellers in that particular genre.
In the not-too-distant future, the first manned mission to land on Mars is about halfway through their stay on the planet when a massive storm forces them to quickly evacuate back to their orbiting spaceship and begin the long journey home. In the chaos, one member of the crew, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is lost after an accident and presumed dead. The only trouble is that Watney is actually alive and when he wakes up amidst the wreckage of their base with a piece of a satellite antenna embedded in his chest, he realizes that he has been left for dead and that with only the meager provisions that were left behind by the others, his chances of survival are mighty slim, especially since he is the lowest-ranking member of the crew and theoretically the least equipped to survive in space for any amount of time. Watney has exactly two things working in his favor--a fierce determination to live and the fact that his purpose on the mission was to conduct experiments to see if plants could be induced to grow in a place without any water or fertilizer to speak of. (Needless to say, this week's NASA announcement regarding the existence of water on Mars is an exquisite bit of timing.)
With his life literally depending on it, Watney vows to "science the shit out of the problem" and after some trial and error is indeed able to make water and fertilizer and grow a crop of potatoes that will help to stretch out his food supplies considerably. He even manages to figure out a way to establish contact with NASA, who have just buried Watney as a hero and who are a bit skittish over the public relations nightmare once word gets out that an astronaut was left behind. On Earth, NASA scientist Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tries to figure out a way to communicate with Watley and get supplies or a rescue mission up to him, public relations chief Annie Montrose (Kristin Wiig) relates the story to a rabidly curious world and chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is forced to make hard decisions about whether the risk of trying to mount a rescue is worth the reward. For a while, the only people unaware of Wately's plight are his former crew members, who are deliberately kept in the dark for a while so as not to disrupt their still-dangerous return to Earth. However, when disasters hit and Wately's ability to survive is rapidly diminished, the crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jesssica Chastain), decide to embark on a risky plan to return to Mars and rescue him in the ta-daa nick of time while the whole world watches below.
The basic premise of "The Martian"--an astronaut stranded in outer space and struggling to survive following a calamity--will no doubt remind genre fans of any number of previous films revolving around that conceit, ranging from the cult favorite "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" to the recent smash hit "Gravity." Those films were excellent but they were more interested in giving audiences thrills and breathless excitement than anything else. "The Martian," on the other hand, is not a particularly fast-paced movie by any means (the story does take place over the course of a couple of years) and is more interested in the process of watching incredibly smart people dealing with a seemingly insurmountable problem and methodically working it out. This may not sound particularly exciting by any means but Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard manage to find a way to make the jargon-heavy dialogue not only relatable to audiences without dumbing things down but exciting as well--the effect is kind of like what David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin pulled off when they came together to make "The Social Network." At the same time, while the film may not be as relentlessly driven as "Gravity," it does manage to generate a certain degree of suspense because we are constantly being remind that even the tiniest slip-up or mistake could prove to be calamitous.
Another reason why the film works so well is the thing that too often gets lost in sci-fi spectacles and that is the human element. It would have been easy, for example, to try to pump up the sympathy factor by maybe giving Watley a family that the film could cut to in order to show them looking worried whenever it needed an emotional boost. Instead, the film hits its big emotional beats by making Watley into someone who is super-smart but still innately likable and worth rooting for. This aspect is helped enormously by Damon's winning performance as Watley--there are few actors working today who could have possibly managed to make the scientific stuff coming out of his mouth sound convincing while still coming across as a regular guy in an impossible situation. The film also refrains from introducing some kind of bad guy who wants to scrub or sabotage the rescue mission for petty reasons--when possible objections to doing it arise, they are eminently logical avenues of thought that would almost certainly come up in discussion if such a situation were to occur in real life. I also like how the film, despite being largely a one-man show for Damon, managed to include a number of strong supporting turns across the board from people like Chastain as the guilt-ridden commander who gave the order to leave Watley behind, Daniels as the NASA chief and Ejiofor as the scientist forced to go very old school in the hopes of saving Watley."The Martian" is a long movie but even though it does take its time to tell its story, there is never a moment in which things ever begin to flag. It looks fantastic, the 3-D is less intrusive than usual (even though it is not necessarily a must-see in that format) and the other technical aspects are all superb. However, the best thing about it is that it is a truly inspirational film in the best sense of the word. This week's news aside, NASA has been in the doldrums for a while now--there hasn't been a space mission of any kind in several years--and if this film hits as big as it deserves to, it could help to turn that perception around. Sure, it depicts a disaster in space but it also shows a number of great minds coming together (even China ends up pitching in) to use science to help make things right. To see something like that on the big screen could inspire kids in the audience (and while it is PG-13, it is probably okay for older pre-teens, though it does contain a couple of tense sequences) to pursue an interest in science of space exploration that could then one day lead to a resurgence in space exploration and a willingness to embrace science rather than to attempt to banish it on ideological grounds. You have to admit, that potential scenario would be the best possible sequel to "The Martian" imaginable.
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